How Epigraphs Contribute to Literary Works

One of the emerging literary conventions of poetry during the 19th century was the use of an epigraph. The purpose of an epigraph serves as a a potential summary or introduction to the themes and ideas within a poem. Lord Byron’s poem Fare Thee Well! was published in 1816 after his failed attempt to use the poem as a reconciliation letter between him and his wife. In Jerome McGann’s commentary found in The Complete Poetical Works Volume III, he notes that the first authorized publication of the poem in 1816 features an excerpt from Samuel Coleridge’s Christabel as an epigraph. The footnotes state that Byron had heard the poem in 1811 and wrote a letter to Coleridge expressing his approval of the piece.  Although Byron first came across Christabel before his separation, the two stanzas he selected as an epigraph for Fare Thee Well work well as an opening to his own poem. By looking closely at the epigraph, we can see that it covers themes of love, separation and change, which enhances those features in Byron’s poem. It is effective in summarizing the main ideas behind the poem and helps to contribute to the tone of the piece by directing the audience to those concepts.

The first stanza of the epigraph discusses love and how that feeling can change over time. Overall, it sets a solemn and regretful tone to the piece.

“Alas! they had been friends in youth:
But whispering tongues can poison truth;
And constancy lives in realms above;
And life is thorny; and youth is vain;
And to be wroth with one we love,
Doth work like madness in the brain;

This works well with Byron’s poem because his attempt to reconcile with Lady Byron ultimately failed. Over time, her feelings towards Byron likely changed due to his numerous affairs and the controversy surrounding him. By selecting this excerpt, Byron focuses on his perspective on the separation. The two opening lines help contribute to the regretful tone he wants the audience to see. Lord and Lady Byron “had been friends in youth”(Line 1) before the controversy surrounding his character led to rumours circulating around by “whispering tongues.” (2) Eventually, the difficulties that they encountered in their relationship became too much. The closing lines of the first stanza outline the affects of love on the mind. Byron’s feelings for Lady Byron “work like madness in [his] brain,” (6) which he selects to gain sympathy from the audience. He wants that perspective to shape the following narrative of Fare Thee Well. 

The second stanza of the epigraph deals with the pain and regret associated with the separation, as well as its lasting impact.

But never either found another
To free the hollow heart from paining –
They stood aloof, the scars remaining.
Like cliffs which had been rent asunder;
A dreary sea now flows between,
But neither heat, nor frost, nor thunder,
Shall wholly do away, I ween,
The marks of that which once hath been.”

The comparison between nature and two individuals in a relationship might have caught Byron’s interest after writing Fare Thee Well! In his other poems, Byron deals with the force of nature. Coleridge’s poem appeals to changes occurring in nature and how it is similar to feelings shifting with time. There is a comparison between two individuals to “cliffs, which had been rent asunder” (10) while “a dreary sea now flows between.” (11) The divide between the cliffs is comparable to Lord and Lady Byron’s relationship, now separated due to the force of controversial events. This scene gives the audience a grand image of how things have changed for the worse. In the final lines of the excerpt, the separation is compared to “the scars remaining” (9) and how “the marks of that which once hath been” (14) will have a lasting impact on his life. Not only is there an emotional trauma, but also a physical attribution to the pain and suffering, comparable to scars and marks. This further draws out sympathy from the audience, as the epigraph comes to an end. With these themes in mind, a specific perspective is chosen by Byron to shape his poem.

By using an epigraph, Byron directs the audience’s attention towards themes of love and changes over time. Since it was originally written for his former wife and not initially published indicates that Byron wants to ensure that the public reception of the poem is received positively. He attempts to gain sympathy from the audience, given the controversy surrounding Byron at the time. He wants to shape his poem by selecting a certain perspective that shows him in favourable light. Although the epigraph is not written by Byron himself, the excerpt from Christabel connects well with Fare Thee Well! by dealing with similar themes of regret and lost love through change.

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2 thoughts on “How Epigraphs Contribute to Literary Works

  1. Agreed 🙂 Nice blog post!
    If you regard epigraphs as a whole (Frankenstein’s particularly), they are typically clever tools of introduction that can (and are) frequently overlooked. My personal favorite epigraph is in Michael Ondaatje’s In the Skin of a Lion, a short excerpt from the classical tale of Gilgamesh. Gilgamesh relevantly encompasses the narrative throughout, and since it was used to introduce it, I couldn’t help but continuously make correlations between the two narratives as I began reading In the Skin of a Lion, in a similar fashion to your lovely blog post here. Or another beautiful one is the Charles Lamb epigraph for To Kill a Mockingbird! Essentially, if an author went through the effort of introducing a story through a glimpse into another text, it certainly holds significance and should not be disregarded.
    “Epigraphs are like little appetizers to the great entrée of a story. They illuminate important aspects of the story, and they get us headed in the right direction”- Anonymous (perfect no?) (by Maya)

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  2. Awesome insight into how epigraphs really play. I think that they allow us as readers (and authors) to establish a way to navigate through the poem and situate the stories (as well as tone as you mentioned!) in a particular paths from the start. This is crucial to some authors because their work is very ambiguous, it is difficult to clearly point out what it is they mean or try to say. The separation probably caused much of sorrow and it is interesting to see how Byron plays out his intentions of how he tries to get his spouse back. Cool interpretation:)!

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